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Inventory structure


After important advances in the earlier part of the last century, the study of the content of phonological inventories has come under neglect. Current phonological theories do not, for the most part, raise such questions as the following: what types of speech sounds can be found in languages?  What sounds are preferred to others?  Does the presence of certain speech sounds in a language favor (or disfavor) the presence of other speech sounds?  What implications does the presence of certain speech sounds in an inventory have for the size of the inventory?  In my current research, I am testing the view that distinctive features play a central role in structuring inventories of contrastive speech sounds in terms of principles such as Feature Economy, Markedness Avoidance, and Phonological Feature Enhancement:


  "Maximize the ratio P/F"


P = the number of phonemes

F = the minimal number of features required to characterize them

              "M < U"

Within a class of sounds in which a feature F is potentially distinctive, marked terms M are less frequent than unmarked terms U

A  vs.  B          (weak contrast:)


A  vs.  B [+F]  (stronger contrast)


Weak contrasts may be enhanced by redundant features


Feature Economy

Markedness Avoidance

Phonological Enhancement:


Selected readings

2006      G. N. Clements, "Markedness and phonological inventories: a new approach," to appear

2005      G. N. Clements, "The role of features in speech sound inventories," in Eric Raimy & Charles Cairns, eds., Contemporary Views on Architecture and Representations in Phonological Theory.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, in press

2003      G. N. Clements, "Feature economy in sound systems,"  Phonology 20.3, pp. 287-333